HEMPHILL, TX (KTRE) - An organization dedicated to defending religious liberty announced Thursday that the Texas Department of Transportation will be changing its rules and regulations regarding private speech on private property. As a result, a Hemphill woman will get to keep the Ten Commandments sign that she erected on her private property in 2013.
Jeanette Golden confirmed in a phone interview that TxDOT will be changing its rules and regulations will allow her to keep the Ten Commandments sign on her private property.
"Yes, they did," Golden said. "Praise God!"
Last year, Golden erected a sign titled "God's Ten Commandments" on the edge of her 28-acre property, which is not far from the state line on State Highway 21, according to a previous East Texas News story. The sign was away from the right of way for SH 21. Then in February 2014, Golden received a notice from TxDOT that stated her sign wasn't compliant with state laws for "outdoor advertising."
TxDOT ordered Golden to remove the Ten Commandments sign within 45 days.
"Wanting to protect her freedom of speech and defend her religious liberty, Mrs. Golden contacted TxDOT to find out what she needed to do to keep her sign," the Liberty Institute Website stated. "TxDOT informed Mrs. Golden that she needed to obtain an outdoor advertising permit, a minimum $2500 surety bond, and an outdoor advertising license. TXDOT also threatened that her failure to comply with these requirements could result in fines of between $500 to $1000 per day."
According to the Website, Golden took some time to consider her options. However, before she could apply for an outdoor advertising license, she received correspondence from TxDOT's associate general counsel which stated the Ten Commandments sign was located near a road that is "statutorily prohibited from having signage at all and thus the sign cannot be permitted."
"In other words, TxDOT instituted an outright ban on all non-commercial signs along the road adjacent to Mrs. Golden's property," the Website stated. "Commercial signs, however, are permitted."
In a phone interview Friday, Golden said she felt like she needed to take a stand for her First Amendment right to free speech
"I just felt like I had not done anything wrong, and it caused me to recognize that we needed to stand for our freedom of speech," Golden said.
A day after the East Texas News talked to Golden in April, she said in a follow up story that her phone had been ringing off the hook. Golden said people from the community kept calling her and urging her to fight to keep the sign on her property.
The initial Web story generated hundreds of Facebook likes and shares in both Texas and Louisiana. The majority of the comments do not like the Texas Department of Transportation telling Golden to remove the sign if she doesn't pay permitting fees.
'We are 110 percent behind you. Do not take that sign down,'" Golden said, reading some of the comments out loud. "'The whole community will back you.' And another one said that he called the governor's office to voice his opinion."
Golden's supporters fell in line with what Center First United Methodist Church pastor, Joel McMahon, and his wife, Sharon, had to say about the situation.
"There's no other reason other than just the Christian faith is being suppressed," Joel McMahon said. "I don't know what law they're talking about, but obviously they think it supersedes the First Amendment."
TxDOT officials said the Highway Beautification Act, a law tied to federal funding and designed to control advertising, was behind their decision to order Golden to take the sign down. However, Golden said she isn't advertising.
"I wasn't advertising because that's my freedom of religion, and that's what I believe, and I was not informing anybody," Golden said. "It was just something that I stood for."
At that point, Golden went to the Liberty Institute to for help. The organization sent a letter to TxDOT that argued forcing Golden to remove her Ten Commandments sign would violates both federal and state religious liberty and free speech laws, the U.S. Constitution, and the Texas Constitution.," the Website stated. The Liberty Institute requested that TXDOT "rescind its removal order, and allow Mrs. Golden to maintain her sign without the requirement of a license, bond, or permit."
"It is outrageous that TXDOT is preventing Texans from having signs on their own private property," Mike Berry, the Liberty Institute's senior counsel, said in a statement at the time. "Religious freedom and private property rights are some of the most sacred rights Texans and Americans enjoy, dating back to the founding of Texas and our nation."
According to the Website, TxDOT acknowledged that its rule is likely unlawful.
"In response, TXDOT agreed to revise its rules and regarding non-commercial signage on private property to protect individuals' rights to freedom of speech," the Website stated. "Once the new rule becomes final, Texans like Mrs. Golden will be allowed to freely express their religious beliefs on their private property."
Before the rule charge, commercial signs were the only ones allowed on private property near TxDOT-maintained roads, and then it was only if they had a license, a bond, and a permit, the Website stated. The policy change means that signs that do not exceed 96 square feet, sit on private property, and do not promote a business are exempt from the license, bond, and permit requirements. Golden's Ten Commandments sign is only 76 square feet, the Website stated.
"I'm just overly exuberant with joy that Liberty Institute took the case," Golden said Friday. "I'm excited with the way everything went our way, and I excited with the way TxDOT supported us in every way possible."
Golden told the Liberty Institute that she always believed in her heart that there would be a change in the rules that would allow her to keep her sign and allow other Texans to express their religious views on their private property.
"As it states on my sign, 'With God, all things are possible,'" Golden told the Liberty Institute.